Books

Gerald Murnane
Border Districts

It begins, this mesmeric inward spiral of a book, with a digressive turn towards the past:

Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.

This move is characteristic of Gerald Murnane’s later manner. Even before we know what the report is ostensibly about, we are directed elsewhere. Indeed, what else is this artful book but a complex patchwork of digressions? And, of course, it is not until the final pages of Border Districts that we do at last discover where the narrator first heard the little phrase.

Long before that, however, the narrator explains that he uses the expression to delineate a mood of heightened sensitivity. While guarding his eyes, he tells us, he becomes aware of a hidden vibrancy or a secret throb in the intricacies of certain everyday scenes. And the special power of these details is to remind him of significant images and events from his past. These memories in turn remind him of other significant images and events, and so it goes.

Border Districts, then, is an account of the sequence of images and the relations between them triggered by a stained-glass window in a church in a small country town near the western border of Victoria, the state in which the narrator has spent his whole life.

Framed as a patiently composed report addressed to no one in particular, Border Districts most closely resembles Barley Patch, the novel published in 2009 that announced Murnane’s return to fiction after a 15-year hiatus; but this new one is, I think, a more concentrated and more satisfying, a more intensely involving book.

Murnane’s narrators tend to be – and not simply in Barley Patch – content to allow patterns of association to emerge without confessing to their conscious direction. In Border Districts, however, there’s a manifest compromise between free reverie and authorial intentness. And the unnamed narrator is more attentive to the shape and thematic coherence of his report.

Stained or coloured glass, for example, is not only the image that kicks off the mnesic process, it is a recurring motif that charts the progress of the narrator towards a possible if ultimately ambivalent revelation. Is there some distant analogue, some all but allegorical parallelism here with the stations of the cross so often represented in the dark and light of glass?

Stained glass is also offered as an explicit metaphor for the particularity of an individual’s vision of the world. To understand what is represented in a stained-glass mosaic, or even to know its true colours, you need to stand inside the building. How can we know with any precision what the colours are or the patterns might be that influence another’s view of the world?

Coloured glass is no new image in Murnane’s fiction; it’s there for all to see in his first novel, Tamarisk Row, published 43 years ago. And indeed there is a lot of imagery and assembled matter in Border Districts that will be familiar to readers. There are marbles and kaleidoscopes, there are racing colours and evocations of the plains, not to mention the numerous apparitions of young female personages distinguishable only by the colour of their hair.

And there is a backyard with a fishpond in which fish swim and are glimpsed. Yes, it’s all there. Wherefore this fascination with ordering and reordering the same small inventory of images? Here is the narrator reflecting on six red pencils in a tin on a shelf behind the desk where he is at work composing his report:

With these six and with still others from each side of them, I often arrange one after another of many possible sequences, hoping to see in the conjectured space between some or another unlikely pair a certain tint that I have wanted for long to see.

It is this yearning quality, which seems utterly genuine despite the note of ironic self-awareness, that gives Murnane’s long creative project, with its unique and eccentric combination of fiction and biography, history and self-constructed metaphysics, its peculiar poignancy.

Sitting at his desk, reaching into his filing cabinet, observing himself as he indulges the remembrance of things past, observing himself as he writes about what he has observed, the narrator of Border Districts seems almost to inhabit a place outside the time of his own conjuration. It is as though he might remain sitting there forever like a more genial and even more interminable version of Beckett’s Krapp, rearranging his experiences and speculations in book after book for all eternity.

But it cannot be. Time runs on, said Yeats, and so must run out – as it did even for Proust. Border Districts is described on the back cover as Murnane’s last work of fiction. This is sad news, if it is true, and disrupts the gentle melancholy suggested by those images of level grassland and empty churches. There is a kind of lurching towards pity and perhaps towards piety whenever we think we catch a glimpse of the figure who lives and breathes on the other side of the stained-glass fiction, finite and mortal, stepping backwards into the shadows.

Whatever the announcement does or does not mean, Border Districts is a wistful valediction. It is a book to be read on a porch or verandah or balcony, on a summer evening, as the sun is beginning to set and the colour beginning to drain from the air. It is a book to be read aloud, its rhythms enjoyed, with all their stilted poetry and power of syntactical precision.

And as you read, you can imagine that what you are channelling is a signal, a transmission from beyond the horizon and its sunset colours, from beyond the border, from the mind of a man who wants to guard his eyes now and forever.  JR

Giramondo, 192pp, $24.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 25, 2017 as "Gerald Murnane, Border Districts". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR